8 Chapter 8: GERMANY 1910 – 1920 – the race to access atmospheric nitrogen

austerity-for-middle-class-meat-market
Austerity for the middle class in Germany during the Great War.

By the end of the war, the largest stockpiles of nitrite in the history of humanity up to that point were in Germany.  It was created by the most productive chemicals industry in the world.

By the end of the 1800’s it became apparent that the world’s growing populations will not be fed unless atmospheric nitrogen can be harvested.  Solving the problem of how to do this became one of the biggest priorities of science.

After an intense search and various processes tested on an industrial scale, including the electric arc method, the German chemist, Fritz Harber finally solved the problem with the help of Robert Le Rossignol who developed and build the required high-pressure device to create ammonia.  It would be the most productive system ever developed to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

The process was first demonstrated in 1909.  The German Dyes manufacturer, BASF acquired the technology and under the leadership of Carl Bosch, the first Haber-process factory went into operation in Oppau, Germany in 1913. (Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brine),

As a direct consequence of this development, Germany was no longer reliant on saltpeter from Chili (sodium nitrate) as fertilizer to feed its massive agriculture industry.  Another consequence of the Haber-process is that it made World War One possible on an industrial scale.  Nitrogen is key in ammunition production.  Germany and its allies could escalate the war to a never before seen level.

There are good examples of Germans toying with the use of nitrite in food, even before the war.  The German scientist,  Glage (1909) wrote a pamphlet where he outlines the practical methods for obtaining the best results from the use of saltpeter in the curing of meats and in the manufacture of sausages. (Hoagland, Ralph,  1914: 212, 213)

Glage gives for the partial reduction of the saltpeter to nitrites by heating the dry salt in a kettle before it is used.  It is stated that this partially reduced saltpeter is much more efficient in the production of color in the manufacture of sausage than is the untreated saltpeter. (Hoagland, Ralph,  1914: 212, 213)

This means that by the 1910’s, German scientists tried to solve the problem by still using saltpeter as starting point to the reaction but getting to a reduced state faster.  The line of thinking of using nitrate as the starting point was finally perfected by the Danes who allowed the reduction to take place at the normal pace.

It was however not before BASF’s new Haber process came into operation that sodium nitrite became generally and cheaply available.  Solving the problem by using sodium nitrite was now a serious possibility.  The Great War provided the environment to “motivate” an entire industry to change from saltpeter to sodium nitrite when saltpeter was suddenly not available for curing, survival was linked to speed of curing and public perceptions were put aside.

By 1909, the world production of inorganic nitrogen by the electric arc method and some miscellaneous processes were standing at a combined 3000 metric tons.  The Haber process was not invented yet.  One year after Ladic started working as a meat curer, by 1913, the arc and miscellaneous processes yielded 18 000 metric ton and the Haber process, 7000 metric tons.

By 1917, the arc and miscellaneous processes delivered 30 000 metric ton and the Haber process, 100 000 metric tons.  This was 5 years after Ladic learned the art of curing and possibly started using sodium nitrite in meat curing.  Over this five years, he has seen a dramatic increase in the availability of nitrite and therefore a reduction in nitrite prices.

In 1920, the Haber process delivered a staggering 308 000 metric ton of nitrogen, compared to the 33 600 metric tons of the arc and miscellaneous processes. (Scott, E. Kilburn. 1923; : 859–76)

World War One broke out on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918.  When the war ended, Germany had huge stockpiles of sodium nitrite (along with many other war-chemicals).  They had to pay a massive war debt and raise the German economy from the dead.  These were desperate times and Germany threw its full energy and industriousness behind this effort.  The effort focused on the lucrative market of the USA.

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The Naming of Prague Salt Copyright © 2016 by Eben van Tonder. All Rights Reserved.

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